From the master of the form, Phillip Lopate, a selection of essays that together trace the arc of his life and career
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Read an ExcerptGetting Personal
By Phillip Lopate Basic Books
Copyright © 2004 Phillip Lopate
All right reserved.
My Early Years at School
In the first grade I was in a bit of a fog. All I remember is running outside at three o'clock with the others to fill the safety zone in front of the school building, where we whirled around with our bookbags, hitting as many proximate bodies as possible. The whirling dervishes of Kabul could not have been more ecstatic than we with our thwacking book satchels.
But as for the rest of school, I was paying so little attention that, once, when I stayed home sick, and my mother had to write a letter of excuse to the teacher, she asked me what her name was and I said I did not know. "You must know what your teacher's name is." I took a stab at it. "Mrs. ... Latka?" I said, latka being the Jewish word for potato pancakes (this was around the time of Hanukkah celebrations). My mother laughed incredulously, and compromised with the salutation "Dear Teacher." As I learned soon after, my teacher's name was actually Mrs. Bobka, equally improbable. She wore her red hair rolled under a hairnet and had a glass eye, which I once saw her taking out in a luncheonette and showing to her neighbor, while I watched from a nearby table with my chocolate milk. Now, can it be possible that she really had a glass eye? Probably not; but why is it that everytime I think of Mrs. Bobka my mind strays to that association? She had a hairnet and a very large nose, of that we can be sure, and seemed to have attained middle age. This teacher paid no attention to me whatsoever, which was the kindest thing she could have done to me. She had her favorite, Rookie, who collected papers and handed out pencils - Rookie, that little monster with the middy blouse and dangling curls, real name Rochelle. "Teacher's Pet!" we would yell at her.
Yet secretly I was attracted to Rookie, and admired the way she passed out supplies, as well as the attention she got.
Otherwise, I was so much in a daze, that once I got sent on an errand to a classroom on the third floor, and by the time I hit the stairwell I had already forgotten which room it was. Afterward, Mrs. Bobka never used me as her monitor.
The school itself was a wreck from Walt Whitman's day, with rotting floorboards, due to be condemned in a year or two; already the new annex that was to replace it was rising on the adjoining lot. But in a funny way, we loved the old school better. The boys' bathroom had zinc urinals with a common trough; the fixtures were green with rust, the toilet stalls doorless. In the Hadean basement where we went for our hot lunches, an overweight black woman would dish out tomato soup. Every day tomato soup, with a skim. Sometimes, when the basement flooded, we walked across a plank single file to get to the food counter. And that ends my memories from first grade.
In the second grade I had another teacher, Mrs. Seligman, whose only pleasure was to gossip with her teacher pals during lineups in the hall and fire drills (when we were supposed to be silent). Such joy came over her when another teacher entered our classroom - she was so bored with the exclusive company of children, poor woman, and lived for these visits.
By second grade, I had been anonymous long enough. One day we were doing show-and-tell, wherein each child bragged how he or she had been to the beach or had on a new pair of tap shoes. My parents had just taken me to see the movie Les Misirables, and Robert Newton as the tenacious gum-baring Inspector had made a great impression on me. Besides, I knew the story backwards and forwards, because I had also read the Classics Illustrated comic book version. As I stood up in front of the class, something possessed me to elaborate a little and bend the truth.
"Mrs. Seligman, I read a book called Les Misirables ..."
She seemed ready to laugh in my face. "Oh? Who is it by?"
"Victor Hugo." I stood my ground. There must have been something in my plausible, shy, four-eyed manner that shook her. Her timing was momentarily upset; she asked me to sit down. Later, when there was a lull in the activity, she called me over to her desk.
"Now tell me, did you honestly read Les Misirables? Don't be afraid to tell the truth."
"Yes! it's about this man named Jean Valjean who ..." and I proceeded to tell half the plot - no doubt getting the order confused, but still close enough to the original to give this old war-horse pause. She knew deep down in her professional soul that a child my age did not have the vocabulary or the comprehension to get through a book of that order of complexity. But she wanted to believe, I felt. If I stumbled she would dismiss me in a second, and I would probably burst into tears. Yet even then I knew (children know it better than adults) that in telling a lie, fidelity is everything. They can never be absolutely sure if you keep denying and insisting.
Just then one of her teacher pals came in, the awesome Mrs. McGonigle, who squeezed bad boys into wastebaskets.
"Do you know what? Phillip here says that he read Victor Hugo's Les Misirables."
"Really!" cried her friend archly. "And you believe him?"
"I don't know."
"What's it about? I've never read it. He must be very smart if he read it and I haven't."
"Tell Mrs. McGonigle the story."
"It's about this man named Jean Valjean who stole a loaf of bread," I began, my heart beating as I recounted his crime, aware that I myself was committing a parallel one. By this time I had gotten more than the attention I wanted and would have done anything to return to my seat. Mrs. McGonigle was scrutinizing me sarcastically with her bifocals, and I was much more afraid of her seeing through my deception than Mrs. Seligman. But it came to me in a dim haze of surprise that Mrs. Seligman seemed to be taking my side; she was nodding, and shushing the other woman's objections. Perhaps nothing so exciting had happened to her as a teacher for months, even years! Here was her chance to flaunt a child prodigy in her own classroom before the other teachers. I told the story as passionately as I could, seeing the movie unroll scene by scene in my mind's eye, a foot away from the desk.
"There's only one way to find out," interrupted Mrs. McGonigle. "We will take him down to the library and see if he can read the book."
My teacher could not wait to try this out. She rose and took my arm. "Now, class, I'm leaving you alone for a few minutes. You are to remain quiet and in your seats!" So they marched me over to the school library. I was praying that the school had no such volume on its shelves. But the librarian produced Victor Hugo's masterpiece with dispatch - as luck would have it, a sort of abridged version for young adults. I knew enough how to sound out words so that I was able to stumble through the first page; fortunately, Mrs. Seligman snatched the book away from me: "See? I told you he was telling the truth." Her mocker was silenced. And Seligman was so proud of me that she began petting my head - I, who had never received more than distracted frowns from her all year long.
But it wasn't enough; she wanted more. She and I would triumph together. I was to be testimony to her special reading program. Now she conceived a new plan: she would take me around from class to class, and tell everyone about my accomplishment, and have me read passages from the book.
I begged her not to do this. Not that I had any argument to offer against it, but I gave her to understand, by turning dangerously pale, that I had had enough excitement for the day. Everyone knows that those who are capable of great mental feats are also susceptible to faints and dizzy spells. Insensitive as she was, she got the point, and returned me regretfully to the classroom.
Every day afterward I lived in fear of being exhibited before each class and made to recount the deed that I had not done. I dreaded the truth coming out. Though my teacher did not ask me to "perform" Les Misirables anymore, nevertheless she pointed me out to any adult who visited the classroom, including the parents of other children. I heard them whispering about me. I bowed my head in shame, pretending that modesty or absorption in school-work made me turn red at the notoriety gathering around me.
So my career as genius and child prodigy began.
"Victor Hugo, hilas!" Gide said, when asked to name the greatest poet in the French language. I say "Victor Hugo, hilas!" for another reason. My guilt is such that every time I hear that worthy giant's name I cringe. Afterward, I was never able to read Les Misirables. In fact, irrationally or not, I have shunned his entire oeuvre.
Excerpted from Getting Personal by Phillip Lopate Copyright © 2004 by Phillip Lopate. Excerpted by permission.
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